MISS HOLMES is on the case at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Review by Christiana Molldrem Harkulich of “Miss Holmes”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Who is Sherlock Holmes? As Lestrade answers in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s 2019-2020 season opener “MISS HOLMES”, Holmes is the “The strangest damn woman I’ve ever met.” This production, which opened last night and runs till August 4th, re-introduces the audience to the late 19th century’s perennial favorite detective but this time both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are women. The two-and-a-half-hour mystery takes us through Holmes and Watson’s first case together, which allows playwright Christopher M. Walsh to explore the hazards of being a woman in 1881 (the year the play is set). This is an appropriate occupation for a play that launches the CSC’s “Season of the Woman” in honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. 

I shan’t give away too much of the plot since this play is a murder mystery, but I’ll give you the premise of the play since the audience learns that in the first scene before we even meet Miss Holmes (played with panache by Kelly Mengelkoch). A young wife, Mrs. Lizzie Chapman (played with a sparkle in her eye by Maggie Lou Rader), receives threatening anonymous notes warning her of the violent and suspect nature of his husband and the unusual death of his previous wives. Mr. Chapman, a detective with Scotland Yard, is from the get-go the play’s obvious villain and Sean Haggerty, in his debut with CSC, plays the role with a mix of bumbling everyman and violent menace to excellent success (his colorful suit, designed by Clara Jean Kelly, wonderfully complements his portrayal). There were audible hisses and a loud “Oh No!” from the audience when Chapman entered in the second half of the play. 

Unraveling the mystery, which is, of course, more complex than it at first seems, and getting to know Sherlock and Watson (Sara Clark) take up the rest of the plot. To be a woman detective or a woman doctor, and unmarried, in Victorian London presents a wide range of issues that the bachelor Detective Holmes of Doyle’s original novels never needed to worry about. The constant threat of the insane asylum hangs above Miss Holmes head, and Dr. Watson must choose between her profession and a marriage that would block her from her work. Clark’s portrayal of the doctor-who-craves-adventure is compelling and it is her journey that carries the play, which is appropriate since Watson is always the lens through which we understand Holmes. Clark’s approach to the character is smart, precise, full of feeling, and it makes me quite excited for her turn as Hamlet later this season. 

The show, directed by Jemma Alex Levy, is certainly an ensemble piece and the company nature of CSC shows through in the ease of the actors together on-stage. Of particular note are Darnell Pierre Benjamin and Miranda McGee, who are both joyful and hilarious additions to the performance in their wide range of roles. Solving the crime takes the audience and our detectives to a wide range of locations that are imaginatively created through the sparse but evocative scenery of Shannon Moore and the flexible and haunting lighting of Justen N. Locke. Together these two designers create a wide range of shadowy places and bring the idea that not all is as it seems into the world of the play. 

The character of Sherlock Holmes debuted on stage in 1899, and the last century has seen many different adaptations and changes (and this is not the first time Holmes has been a woman). As evidenced by the popularity of the BBC’s “SHERLOCK” and CBS’s “ELEMENTARY”, there is pleasure in seeing the too-smart detective solve the seemingly impossible case again and again, and that game is yet again afoot at the Otto M. Budig Theatre.